The automatic door to the department slid apart and, from across the open plan office, Eleanor heard the sound of male footsteps in the reception area, the thud of a briefcase or back-pack hitting the floor and then a windcheater being placed upon a clothes-stand. Unusually, Mike, her twenty-something assistant, had arrived earlier than normal.
“Hi there, oh Beautiful One! …” he called out cheekily as he approached, “… Here, I’ve brought you a latte with chocolate sprinkles …”
Eleanor accepted the offering with indifference and continued leafing through the paperwork upon her desk.
“How did it go yesterday?” she asked, without looking up.
“Oh, fabulous …” he replied, “… no, I mean it. Before I transferred here, I had some misgivings about the whole concept of departing, but yesterday they all – we all – had a wonderful party.”
Eleanor did not react. She had heard this sort of testimony before many times, indeed experienced it herself, and it was nothing new.
She listened whilst Mike told of the graduation-type atmosphere in the packed hall as the B-70s and their friends and families listened to worthy speeches and then watched the impressively-organised documentary-style videos of each departee’s life, before taking their places for the splendid lunch and then two further hours of partying and dancing to the live band – all televised ‘live’ on G1, the official government channel. Honouring the departing was more than a civic duty, it had become a privilege – as witness the line-up of celebrities from the arts, sport and music world who now queued up to attend and take part in these functions.
As Mike continued, Eleanor turned her mind to the National Heroes Arboretum at Stroud, already designated as a world heritage site, now the most visited public memorial in Britain. Its impressive stone entrance portals bore the famous epitaph ‘For your today, we gave out tomorrow’, a classic and apt variation on that created by John Maxwell Edmunds in February 1918, towards the end of the First World War, for the allied war cemetery at Kohima:
‘When you go home, tell them of us and say
For their tomorrow, we gave our today.’
By the time Mike had finished his account of supervising the previous day’s event, most of the remainder of the department had arrived and were busying themselves with the minutest details of their programme of future events.
Eleanor, one of the stars of her intake on the fast-track civil service graduate scheme, was now in charge of managing over twenty of the three hundred such ‘departures’ that occurred every month throughout Greater London. According to the official statistics, way back in 2009 the number of people who died in the United Kingdom had been just 491,000 – now, well in 2032, the most recent year for which figures were available, the figure was closer to 1,300,000 and rising. Of course, mortality rates were falling as medical science improved both longevity and ‘serious illness’ survivals, but the key factor was the extraordinary growth in the ‘grey’ population. In economic terms, its burden upon the country’s infrastructure, health and welfare systems was unsustainable. Politicians had known this from the 1980s, but – inevitably in those days – for any of them to have discussed it publicly would have been tantamount to electoral suicide.
Fortunately – however, not without huge wailing and gnashing of teeth on both the Left and Right of the political spectrum – the national crisis of 2017-2019, prompted by a catastrophic drop in the value of sterling, which broke midway through the 2015 Labour government’s term, had inadvertently solved the reluctance to have a public debate on the ‘grey’ population issue. It had done so by discarding the messy and unsatisfactory problem of elections – and indeed, the electorate.
The National Government of 2020 abolished all that and, in the cause of ‘achievement before waste’ had set about a host of seemingly intractable problems with a dynamism that had transformed the landscape, both literal and figurative, of Britain.
Few in Britain in 2020 could have imagined the size of the task, but more important, the scale of the progress that had been made by the National Government. In many respects, it had been a case of winning the battle of ‘hearts and minds’. But once people had squeezed their heads around the concept that, in return for guaranteed security in life, there was a simple list of duties and responsibilities that each citizen had to accept and perform, it was downhill all the way. The British population suddenly acquired a sense of purpose that it had not experienced since the days of the British Raj and the Empire, or possibly even the Napoleonic War times. Where before there had been worry and uncertainty, now there was the opposite. Nobody had to beg for food, or worry about clothing, schooling, holidays or recreation – this was all provided. That is, of course, as long as the individual delivered – especially as regards his or her given work and duties.
Amidst all this, of course, the concept of B-70 departure had arrived with crisp logic. The prospect of ten years of unrestrained hedonism, even if it then concluded with an otherwise shortened life, after clocking up just sixty years of devotion and labour did not seem at all outrageous as it might have done in the early 21st Century, before a series of catastrophic global financial crises had taught the world a few salutary and lasting lessons for life.
Thus another day passed. Eleanor did not allow herself to think of the evening until after her scheduled 5.00pm weekly video conference call with Terence Arthur, Secretary for the Home Office with specific responsibility for the B-70 programme. Despite the pressure of the administrative work associated with organising the B-70 events, Eleanor knew that Arthur would be stressed about his appearance in debate in the Senate the following day and it was her job to brief him sufficiently to send him home to his family in some degree of confidence.
As for Eleanor herself – with her husband Crispin off attending one of his dining club evenings at the Saville – Tuesdays were also her own ‘me’ time. As she and Crispin had no children, she chose to spend hers attending a well-known swingers club, in a smart town house not one hundred and fifty yards from Aspinall’s, dressed in a cat-mask, a feather boa, a pair of black thigh-high PVC boots and nothing else. Or, if either the club was not operating, or the mood took her, picking up fit young men, one at a time, in the Mango Lounge on Earl’s Court Road and rogering them senseless. It sure beat running through her departmental papers one last time in readiness for the departmental viewing of the spectacle in the Commons the following day.